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Road to Rapture: Thomas Merton's Itinerarium Mentis in Deum

From: Franciscan Studies
Volume 55, 1998
pp. 281-297 | 10.1353/frc.1998.0033

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ROAD TO RAPTURE: THOMAS MERTON'S ITINERARIUM MENTIS IN DEUM INTRODUCTION The presence and patronage of St. Bonaventure in the life of Thomas Merton may be as profound as it seems subtle. Yet the Seraphic Doctor holds a key to locating Merton in the rich panorama of Franciscan spirituality, and the Itinerarium mirrors the route of Merton's soul's journey into God. Of the several ways Merton's soul was influenced by the Franciscan tradition, this one in particular invites closer attention, namely the impression made by Bonaventure and his guide to the contemplative ascent, and the dramatic affect it would have on Merton's own mystical path. The encounter between one of the most celebrated spiritual seekers of our time and one of the great spiritual directors of all time is an interesting perspective from which to consider Merton's "Franciscanism", for as we shall see, the engagement would orient the itinerant profoundly and perduringly. Although Merton was selective and experimental with Bonaventure's map, it nevertheless inspired and encouraged him to set out on the mystical quest and find his own road to rapture. The Itinerarium mentis in Deum is a comprehensive scheme which sets before the spiritual seeker a vast terrain of variegated landscapes for traversal into God, and a design of the journey itself in various stages and phases. Bonaventure's masterplan is elegantly proposed, a veritable summa of Christian spirituality and the work of a highly developed and well rehearsed systamatician. The infrastructure upon which his spiritual roadways are constructed include a vivid and pervasive understanding of the Trinity buttressed by a coherent neo-Platonic metaphysics. Upon this theological foundation, Bonaventure delineates multiple and successive routes which lead toward the junction of communion with God at the summit of the metaphorical mountain of ecstasy. A six-winged seraph, emblem of Franciscan transformation, is the pilgrim's guide in the labor of ascent and discloser of the six dimensions of the journey which Bonaventure envisions and articulates in the theo281 Franciscan Studies, 55 (1998) 282KATHLEEN DEIGNAN, CND poetics of his rich medieval sensibility. In a highly defined and deliberate order of stages of ascent evocative of Platonic patterns and Dionysian designs for spiritual progress, Bonaventure executes a comprehensive typology of essentially Christian routes into God. Indeed, the Itinerarium mentis in Deum proposes not one journey, but several, depending on the temperament, qualifications, locations, and intentions of the journeymakers as they seek a road to rapture. "FIND YOUR OWN ROAD" Thomas Merton was one such journeyman who set out in his early years of conversion to find his own road to rapture with Bonaventure's itinerary in hand. At times he rambles randomly through landscapes Bonaventure painstakingly delineates, at others he is sure-footed as he explores aspects of the way with remarkable traction. How does this twentieth-century itinerant, lacking the cogent metaphysical, systematizing impulse, and qualifications of Bonaventure, find his way into the sacred geography to which the Itinerarium points? These curiosities inspire this reflection on the Bonaventuran features of Merton's Franciscanism and focus it on those elements of Bonaventure's Itinerarium which Merton pursues in his own forays into the realm of God. Though he did not traverse the whole scope of Bonaventure's mystical terrain, still Merton seemed to travel far toward certain frontiers described in the Itinerarium, and found his own way to speak of them. The search for a road, a pathway to God, was ever Merton's quest, as sensed in the prayer that would eventually whisper itself in his Thoughls in Solitude: My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end...But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you...I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road.1 Merton's desire for that right road into God was the passport qualifying him for the sacred expedition, for as the great orienteer Bonaventure charged: "In order to embark on this journey, make 'Thomas...